Monday, 25 May 2020

Castles in the Air

Messieurs Gryphon and Griffin guarding the current Balintore Castle reading pile

I have been putting the book "Castles in the Air" by Lady Jean Fforde on my Christmas list for some time. Finally, after many years of Santa's oversight, I decided to bite the bullet and bought the book for myself.

The reason I wanted to read Lady Jean's autobiography is that she grew up in Buchanan Castle (1858), which is the sister castle to Balintore Castle (1860). Buchanan was designed by the same architect, William Burn, and is the closest building in style as well as being incredibly close in period. I was hoping I might discover more about how life had been at Balintore, and I was not disappointed.

There was much revealing information on how a country house functioned in the 1920's and 1930's when Lady Jean was a girl. I was excited to get chapter and verse on the function of a Still Room, as there is one at Balintore see here. I was also thrilled to find out about the roles of the butler and his three under-butlers. The under-butlers were public facing, but the butler himself was more of a manager. Who knew?! There is a butler's pantry at Balintore, though I suspect Balintore's butler was more hands-on as this building is considerably smaller.

Lady Jean's family spent Autumn and Winter at Buchanan Castle in Drymen, and Spring and Summer at Brodick Castle on Arran. She documents the considerable ritual of moving household on such a regular basis. Why two castles you may ask? This is due to the merging of two aristocratic dynasties: Buchanan Castle comes with the Duke of Hamilton title and Brodick Castle comes with the Duke of Montrose title. Hence the plural "castles" in the book's title.

Lady Jean is incredibly self-deprecating: amongst the many talents she does not possess are shooting and spelling :-), and it is clear she feels somewhat of an "ugly duckling" growing up. However, there is still the confidence of great privilege e.g. she used to spend her summer holidays in Monaco, playing with Prince Rainier and his sister, with whom she became very close.

The book has no literary pretension or filtering and Lady Jean just tells it like it is, so ultimately it is of great value to the historian. I initially thought that the writing was too un-structured to get on with. It does jump about here and there somewhat, with no themes emerging. However, I got used to the rhythm and ended up enjoying the book very much.

Lady Jean (11 November 1920 – 13 October 2017) is of that amazing wartime generation and only passed away at a great age surprisingly recently. She worked directly under Alan Turing at Bletchley Park, but describes the experience as rather dull. :-)

As a child, she witnessed the last chapter of the country house operating in its full Victorian splendour, and she confesses towards the end rather sadly that in her lifetime Buchanan Castle ended up as a ruin with huge trees growing through it. The castle was eventually badly managed as a hotel, by a family member, and literally went to wrack and ruin. I have visited the substantial ruins of Buchanan Castle on two occasions. Brodick Castle is now under the ownership of the National Trust for Scotland. The family's loss of Buchanan and Brodick could be considered mismanagement on one hand, and on the other, as simply the Zeitgeist moving against the large country house.

Life on Arran in the 20's and 30's struck me as particularly idyllic. At that time, the family virtually owned the whole island. I grew up on the West Coast of Scotland directly facing the Isle of Arran, yet have only visited once on a day trip as a teenager with a friend. Arran struck me then as a kind of paradise. The day was sunny and hot and there were bays and coves to explore, and I was knocked out by my visit to Brodick Castle. My love of this building is clearly an early clue to my leaning towards the Baronial. "Now, this is a proper castle." I thought, after my disappointment at the pallid Adam interiors of the local Culzean Castle viewed when I was even younger.

I could not get my head around how my family had never visited this wonderful island that was so close to where we lived. A school friend used to moan about always going on holiday to their holiday home on Arran. To me this sounded particularly wonderful, as my family never went on holiday.

As I was reading this book, a friend of Balintore suggested I read a book called "Castles in the Air" by Judy Corbett, documenting the author's journey restoring Gwydir Castle in the foothills of Snowdonia. A book with the same title and about someone also on a restoration journey and suggested by a friend whose judgement I trusted?!?!?! There was too much karma involved, I simply had to read the book.

This book was very different, with distinct literary ambition. Judy is a book binder, a zealous reader, and a skilled writer. At first, I thought the book was over-written and coming through too many filters, emerging from the colourful imagination of the author and her obsessive interest in history. However, the book quickly settled into a more comfortable tone, at once humorous but possessing real emotional intensity. The restoration drive for Judy and her husband Peter was overwhelming and almost without reason, and the real hardships they suffered struck an enormous chord with me.

I was delighted to hear that others suffer from multiple longstanding leaks in their roof, and single digit interior temperatures. Sometimes, I rue the fact that Balintore is in the chilly highlands, but am comforted that a Welsh Castle is equally cold and indeed I also recently learned that French castles are the same via the delightful Chateau Diaries vlog. Apparently, getting a castle's interior above single digit temperatures is reassuringly difficult in France too. I have often wondered if a French castle would be warmer.

I actually knew a lot about Gwydir Castle already, though I had not put the name "Gwydir" to the stories. It has a tendency to flood and has accordingly appeared in the news, and most famously Judy went on a quest to locate the wood panelled interior of one of the large rooms in "Gwydir" which was rumoured to have been sold to William Randolf Hurst, the US newspaper tycoon on whom the film "Citizen Kane" is based. It is an absolutely fascinating detective story. I shan't give any spoilers!

There is much karma here as I have been fascinated from my early teens by Hurst and his acquisition of historic European interiors for his Californian Castle, San Simeon which was fictionalised as Xanadu in the Orson Wells' film. In fact, collecting cheap reclaimed items for Balintore has made me reflect on myself as "a Hurst on a budget". :-) It gets even weirder as I managed to finally acquire some old panelling myself, and this is arriving tomorrow. Please await the blog entry.

Judy often refers to spirits from the past informing a building, and I was taken aback by the most convincing account I have ever read of a ghost, written by this intelligent and articulate woman. I do think about these spirits myself on occasion, especially as the motivation for restoration must surely be romantic in origin; it most certainly is not financial. :-) I definitely have kindred feelings with Judy and her artist and art historian husband Peter, so much so, that I feel I know them and would comfortably drop in at Gwydir - even though on paper I am a complete stranger. In any case, they are used to people taking liberties with their home. I have experienced the strange effect of castles on visitors myself. Judy is astonishing rude/truthful/amusing about badly behaved visitors and guests. There is no doubt they will be able to identify themselves from the prose. I felt much better about staying polite with my own recalcitrant guests, even when this is difficult, simply knowing that Judy sometimes gives up the fight.

No explanation was given of why "Castles" (plural) appears in the title, but I suspect it could be due to the layerings of Gwydir Castle in the writing: a historic reality, a ruin, a place of dreams, a modern restoration and as a home of great spiritual reward,

poster for 1952 British film "Castle in the Air"

While I was reading the second book, another friend of Balintore recommended a film to me called "Castle in The Air". This really was too much. I had to view that movie.

The lead character, the earl of a rather dilapidated Scottish Castle, played by David Tomlinson, spends most of the film trying to sell his castle, which he considers un-sellable. The irony is that I have spent a lot of time trying to buy such a property. :-)

I did enjoy the film, and it is quite a gem, but it is somewhat creaky and is very definitely a stage piece rather than a cinematic one. Broad farce is much more suited to the stage. What saved it were the energetic performances by some of the great British character actors. The stand-out was Ewan Roberts (genuinely Scottish) who played the earl's servant Menzies. He accurately captured a certain wry Scottish vernacular. Some of the castle's interiors are a type of English Gothic one would never see in Scotland, but architectural accuracy in fiction is not a deal-breaker, even for me. 

The poor quality of the film print and digitisation on YouTube and the dated drama made it feel like the film was made in 1932 instead of 1952.

The jokes about the low temperature were too close to the bone. :-)

I initially thought the film was going to be an English cartoon version of Scotland, but the film truly fits into the Scottish canon, and I am delighted to know of it.


  1. Thank goodness that these media exist. For what it's worth, cold preserves things. So it must be good for your skin. ;)

    1. For most of the year at Balintore, there is no need to put things in the fridge. :-) As you suggest, I live in the hope that the anti-ageing effect works on me too.